Spain’s Capital of Culture

San Sebastián will be a European Capital of Culture this year. So what does that mean, if you’re thinking of visiting? Well, it’s very good news!

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


San Sebastián, Spain

You go for the food, you stay for culture. Or is it the other way around? It doesn’t really matter. The point is, there’s enough here in San Sebastián to nourish both the body and the mind.

Culture in San Sebastian, Spain

Perhaps you’ve heard about the food scene in the Spanish coastal city of San Sebastián?

I’ve written previously about the famous pintxos bars, which are a local form of tapas, but there’s much more than that.

San Sebastián has the most Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in the world. From the basic snacks in a roadside bar to fine dining with internationally-acclaimed chefs, the full range of the spectrum is here.

It seems sometimes like the whole city is obsessed with food and everything revolves around it. No complaints from me.

Culture in San Sebastian, Spain

But I do feel that maybe this obsession with food – from locals and tourists alike – can sometimes obscure the full picture of San Sebastián’s cultural scene.

The pintxos bars are part of the culture, true. The local cider houses are also part of the culture too, true.

But let’s not also forget about the art, the music, the architecture and, of course, the Basque traditions. They are all important elements in a thorough exploration of San Sebastián.

Culture in San Sebastian, Spain

The people of San Sebastián are very proud of their Basque culture.

As well as having their own unique language, there is music, dance and costumes all endemic to the Basque region.

Culture in San Sebastian, Spain

While globalisation – and even nationalisation – could have threatened these things, there has always been a concerted effort to protect what makes this area so special.

Unfortunately that has sometimes spilled over into violence in the past, with the actions of some Basque Separatist movements. Thankfully, though, violence appears to have been replaced by dialogue for the most part these days.

Culture in San Sebastian, Spain

It’s why it’s quite exciting and appropriate to see San Sebastian, at the heart of the Basque region, honoured as a European Capital of Culture this year.

European Capital of Culture 2016

Each year there are two cities chosen to be European Capitals of Culture. For 2016, San Sebastián is one and Wrocław in Poland is the other. But what does it mean to be one of these cities?

Well, there are lots of practical elements, which I’m come to in a second. But first, let’s look at how it comes about.

Cities interested in being part of the project normally have to express their interest about six years in advance and there’s essentially a bidding and selection process (a bit like the Olympics).

The European Commission is looking for places that not only have a lot to offer, but will benefit from being included.

Capitals of countries are sometimes included – although they’re normally from smaller nations (Tallinn in Estonia or Latvia in Riga, for example). More often than not, though, it is secondary cities, places that need a chance to shine.

Good examples in recent years are Mons in Belgium, Maribor in Slovenia, and Turku in Finland.

Culture in San Sebastian, Spain

Once a city is chosen, it then puts together a year long celebration of its culture. This is often a chance to open new cultural buildings, create community events, produce travelling art events.

Here’s how the European Commission puts it:

“Being a European Capital of Culture brings fresh life to these cities, boosting their cultural, social and economic development. Many of them, like Lille, Glasgow and Essen, have demonstrated that the title can be a great opportunity to regenerate their urban centres, bringing creativity, visitors and international recognition.”

Culture in San Sebastian, Spain
Culture in San Sebastian, Spain

San Sebastián 2016

Things are getting busy in San Sebastián as the city – and all of Spain – see in the new year. The Capital of Culture programme official start in a couple of weeks on January 20.

I’ve had a chance to look around the building that will be the focus of many of the events, called Tabakalera.

This large complex has many different levels where cultural performances and functions can be held. The building was a tobacco factory until 2003 and redevelopment inside only finished a few months ago.

It’s a nice representation of a city moving into the modern age without letting go of its ties to the past.

Culture in San Sebastian, Spain
Culture in San Sebastian, Spain

I flick through the program of events for 2016 and it’s hard to know where to start – there are hundreds of things going on.

There are operas and theatre pieces; concerts and art shows.

I see a hands-on technology hub; a workshop on art and social emergencies; an exhibition about women in maritime history; a travelling caravan of erotica; and a puppet show.

That’s just a tiny selection.

Culture in San Sebastian, Spain

I am almost a bit overwhelmed by it all. I’m about to close the program when I notice a hiking relay, where people walk each Sunday for 32 weeks to honour the significance of mountaineering in Basque society.

Every turn of the page has another fascinating event. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into putting together all the events for this year.

Culture in San Sebastian, Spain

One of the key aims for San Sebastián during this year is to promote stronger ties with the rest of Europe.

The organisers of the programme have created a specific theme called ‘Culture for Living Together’ which includes an exhibition of how art has depicted peace in Europe throughout the ages.

There are also three ‘travelling embassies’ that will take artists from different countries to various European cities by ship, bus and bicycle.

Culture in San Sebastian, Spain

The Basque people may be proud of their culture and they may want to protect it. But they also want very much to be seen as an integral part of the broader Spanish and European communities.

The militant element of the Basque Separatist movement has not gone away completely but the message here is clear: that is the minority.

The celebration this year is not about independence or cultural differences. It’s about celebrating diversity and inclusion with something the Basque people know so well – fun.


You will find the more upmarket hotels in Centro but the Old Town (La Parte Vieja) is much more lively to stay in.


With modern and private dorm beds, A Room In The City is a great hostel in San Sebastian.


You’ll get friendly hospitality and affordable comfortable rooms at Pension Del Mar.


With understated elegance, Boulevart Donostia is a wonderful boutique hotel.


And for a special luxury experience, I would recommend Maria Cristina, right in the heart of town.

Time Travel Turtle was supported by San Sebastian Tourism in partnership with iambassador but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

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